ERIC Identifier: ED447148
Publication Date: 2000-09-00
Author: Alcala, Angelo L.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Assessment and Evaluation College Park MD.
The Preliterate Student: A Framework for Developing an
Effective Instructional Program. ERIC/AE Digest.
The number of limited English proficient (LEP) children attending American
schools has grown dramatically over the past decade. Much of this growth has
occurred in states and school districts that previously enrolled only a handful
of these students. As the LEP student population has grown, so has the need for
the development of special language-learning programs. The challenge of
educating LEP students arises from the growth and diversity of this group of
students and their diverse academic and social needs (Minicucci & Olsen,
Until recently, a majority of the secondary schools in the nation were
meeting the needs of most of these LEP students by offering courses/ programs in
English as a Second Language (ESL) which were designed primarily for LEP
students possessing literacy skills in their native language. However, with the
continuous increases in enrollment of the LEP student population, the number of
LEP students lacking literacy skills in their native language has also
increased. As a result, there has been an increase in the need for programs
designed specifically for this special segment of the LEP student population.
This special group of LEP students is most often referred to in the literature
as either students with limited formal schooling (LFS) or as "preliterates."
Unlike the term "illiterate" which means not knowing how to read and write, the
term preliterate implies that the individual will eventually obtain the
This article discusses important aspects of the LFS student population: LFS
student defined, impact on schools, individualized language development plan,
classroom instruction, and assessment of the LFS student.
WHO IS THE LFS STUDENT?
Generally, the LFS student is an
older youth (aged 12-21) who lacks literacy skills in his/her native language
because of limited formal education. In most cases, the LFS student possesses
less than 2 complete years of a formal education and possesses a language
proficiency that is either non-English or limited-English.
Various factors may contribute to the preliterate student's lack of a formal
education. The need for the child to supplement the family's income and/or the
need for the child to help in the home are two possible factors. Others may
include the remote location of a home, the lack of parental supervision, and
frequent moves caused by economic need or political turmoil (Morse, 1996; The
The number of years a student spends in school, the quality of the education
received, and the consistency of that educational experience is important in
assessing all LEP students. Research indicates that students with strong
academic and linguistic skills in the native language will more easily acquire a
second language than those with weaker skills (Cummins, 1981). Students who are
literate in their native language, who possess grade-level school experience,
and who possess an uninterrupted educational background require a very different
academic focus than students of the same age who possess only limited, if any,
literacy skills in their native language. For instance, a student with limited
literacy skills in the native language will require more native-language support
than the literate student from the same country. Yet, a majority of the content
courses in the typical middle school and high school rely on academic language
proficiency in English.
HOW IS THE SCHOOL AFFECTED?
Although the percentage of the
LFS youth in the school may only represent a small portion of the LEP student
population, the impact can be significant. In most cases, the implementation of
additional native language instructional services and the employment or
reassignment of instructional assistants to provide these services is necessary.
Services provided by these "special" instructional assistants often include
instruction, translation between teacher and student, translation between staff
and parents, and other language related tasks.
In addition, staff development training for all teachers in topics such as
native language instruction, ESL in the content areas, and parental involvement
is necessary. Because many of the preliterate students may come from backgrounds
very different from those of most teachers, training in multicultural awareness
is also important. Teachers must realize that the LFS student population
generally finds all aspects of the school experience alien: language, culture,
socioeconomic levels, schedules, procedures, and building facilities. Equally as
important as the aforementioned topics, although not discussed as often, is the
need to train teachers in the utilization of appropriate instructional
strategies and the means (authentic assessment) by which to assess LFS students.
HOW DOES ONE DEVELOP AN INDIVIDUALIZED LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
In an effort to determine the instructional
strategies/activities that are most likely to prove effective in working with a
particular LFS student, it is highly recommended that an Individualized Language
Development Plan (ILDP) for that student be developed. The ILDP, adapted from an
individualized education plan developed by Clark and Starr (1996), should serve
as the basis for the content, the instructional activities, and the teaching
activities that are to be selected for that particular student. In addition, the
ILDP should serve as the basis from which to measure the LFS student's progress.
The ILDP should include the following:
*an assessment of the student's present level of academic performance
(reading/writing in the native language and math),
*an assessment of the student's English language proficiency, a diagnosis of
the student's strengths and weaknesses,
*a statement of the long-term goals,
*an allocation of the time the student will
*spend in the selected program (an after school program, a self-contained
classroom, a school within a school, a language development center, etc.),
*the person (teacher, parent, specialist, etc.) responsible for each aspect
of the instructional service being provided,
*a statement of the short-term instructional goals necessary to attain
*specific recommendations concerning materials of instruction and teaching
*appropriate assessment (portfolios, performance, anecdotal records, teacher
In developing the ILDP, it is also highly recommended that ESL educators take
into consideration the ESL Standards for Pre-K-12 Students as set forth by the
TESOL Association (1997). The standards are organized by grade-level clusters
(pre-K-3, 4-8, 9-12) and address different English proficiency levels
(beginning, intermediate, advanced, and limited formal schooling). The purpose
of the ESL Standards is to improve the education of students learning English as
a second or additional language in the United States.
WHAT TYPES OF INSTRUCTIONAL ACTIVITIES/STRATEGIES BEST MEET THE NEEDS OF THE LFS STUDENT?
First and foremost, prior to considering
the instructional activities/strategies to be used, it is extremely important
that the student be provided with a warm, caring school/classroom environment.
This is vital because, as previously stated, LFS students often find all aspects
of the school environment alien. The idea of not "fitting in" can eventually
result in the development of low self-esteem and the risk of dropping out
(Johnson, Levy, Morales, Morse, and Prokopp, 1986). Past statistics indicate
that for many secondary LEP students, the middle school is often the beginning
of a high dropout rate (Minicucci, 1985; Olsen & Chenn, 1988).
Varying activities, providing cooperative learning opportunities, and using
audio-visual aids while attempting to draw from the student's past experiences
is an excellent strategy to implement. The goal is to not only teach students
literacy skills in the native language, but to also teach meaningful,
communicative, and functional use of the English language. The previously
mentioned ESL Standards provide educators with a foundation from which to
develop various meaningful opportunities for LFS students to learn English.
For example, giving students an opportunity to communicate(using English) in
social settings is Goal 1 Standard 1 of the ESL Standards. According to Holt,
Chips, and Wallace (1991), cooperative learning provides the structure for this
to occur. In cooperative teams, students with lower levels of proficiency can
interact with students who possess a higher level of proficiency in order to
negotiate meaning of the content. In this type of learning environment, LFS
students can begin to build a strong foundation in oral proficiency as they
acquire literacy skills in the second language. Because all students engage in
oral practice and utilize interpersonal skills, all students benefit.
According to Goal 1 Descriptors of the ESL Standards, activities like
cooperative learning can provide students with an opportunity to share and
request information, express needs and feelings, utilize nonverbal
communication, engage in conversations, and conduct transactions. Cooperative
learning activities can also provide LFS students with the skills that are
necessary to function in real-life situations such as the utilization of context
for meaning, the seeking of support from others, and the comparing of nonverbal
and verbal cues.
Because LFS students are generally older, it is important that school
learning result in discourse, products, and performances that have value or
meaning in real life beyond success in school. For this reason, some school
leaders argue that a distinction be made between academic literacy and
functional literacy. Academic literacy is generally identified as that which is
free from error in syntax and word structure, punctuation and spelling.
Functional literacy, on the other hand, varies according to the individual's
needs and divergent roles. These school leaders state that functional literacy
rather than academic literacy should be the goal of education for preliterate
students (Walker de Felix, Waxman, & Paige, 1994). As a result, many current
high school programs have taken this idea a step further and developed courses
that provide the LFS student with the training needed to acquire/maintain a job.
Because the focus of well-designed preliterate programs relies heavily on
learning that is significant and meaningful in real life, authentic assessment
is a must. The goal is to ascertain student progress via a variety of assessment
tools. Continuous teacher observations (informal and/or formal), a collection of
the student's work samples, and periodic anecdotal descriptions of the student's
accomplishments are a few of the methods one can use in assessing the LFS
student. To be fully effective, the student and the student's parents should be
allowed to participate in assessing whether or not sufficient progress is being
Provided that schools recognize and address the
special needs of the LFS student population, an LFS student can respond
positively with dramatic progress. Although the progress will often vary
dramatically from that of the literate LEP student, it is important that
teachers recognize it as progress. A proper ILDP, effective instructional
strategies, and authentic assessment aid all those involved(the student, the
teacher, and the parents) in recognizing the progress made as such. The result
is a sense of accomplishment and continued encouragement for learning.
REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED READING
Chamot, A.U. & O'Malley, J.M. (1986). A cognitive academic language learning approach: An ESL
content-based curriculum. Wheaton: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual
Clark, L., & Starr, I. (1996). Secondary and middle school teaching
methods.(7th ed.) Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Collier, V.P. (1992). A synthesis of studies examining long-term language
minority student data on academic achievement. Bilingual Research Journal, 16,
Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting
educational success for language minority students. In California Department of
Education, Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework
(pp. 3-50). Los Angeles, CA: Dissemination and Assessment Center, California
State University, Los Angeles.
Hancock, C. (1985). Teaching pre- and semi-literate Laotian and Cambodian
adolescents to read: Helpful hints. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED
Holt, D.D., Chips, B., & Wallace, D. (1991). Cooperative learning in the
secondary school: Maximizing language acquisition, academic achievement, and
social development. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual
Johnson, F., Levy, R., Morales, J., Morse, S., & Prokopp, M. (1986).
Migrant students at the secondary level: Issues and opportunities for change.
Las Cruces, NM:ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 264 070).
Krashen, S.D. & Terrell, T.D. (2000). The natural approach. Pearson
Lado, A. (1990). Ways in which Spanish-speaking illiterates differ from
literates in ESL classrooms. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 367
Minicucci, C. (1985). Dropping out, losing out: The high cost for California.
Sacramento, CA: Assembly Office of Research.
Minicucci, C., & Olsen, L. (1992). Programs for secondary limited English
proficient students: A California study. Focus Occasional Paper No. 5
Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.
Morse, S. (1996). Unschooled migrant youth: Characteristics and strategies to
serve them. ERIC Digest. (ERIC Document Reproduction No. ED405 158).
Olsen, L., & Chen, M. T. (1988). Crossing the schoolhouse border:
Immigrant students and the California public schools. San Francisco, CA:
Richard-Amato, P.A. (1996). Making it happen: Interaction in the second
language classroom. White Plains, NY: Addison-Wesley.
The TESOL Association. (1997, March). ESL standards for pre-K-12 students.
Available at http://www.tesol.org/assoc/k12standards/it/02.html
Walker de Felix, J., Waxman, H.C., & Paige, S. 1994). Instructional
processes in secondary bilingual classrooms. Third National Research Symposium
on Limited English Proficient Student Issues: Focus on Middle and High School
This Digest is based on an article originally appearing in Practical
Assessment, Research and Evaluation.